I’m Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we are going to explore human and cultural potential. With me in the studio is Dr. Jean Houston, a grand master in the field of human potential.
Dr. Houston is the director of the Foundation for Mind Research in New York. She is the director of the Human Capacities Training Program, a past president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, and was chosen the Teacher of the Year by the National Association of Teacher Educators in 1985. Dr. Houston is the author of twelve books, including Mindgames, The Possible Human, The Search for the Beloved, The Hero and the Goddess, Godseed, and Lifeforce. Welcome, Jean.
JEAN HOUSTON, Ph.D.: Thank you, Jeffrey.
MISHLOVE: What a pleasure to be with you again.
HOUSTON: It’s a pleasure to be here.
MISHLOVE: Your career in human potential goes back a very long way, and I think there are many stories from your childhood that have to do with it. As a child you grew up knowing Teilhard de Chardin, and we can talk about that. But I think one of the most interesting things about your childhood is the remarkable father that you had who was a humorist and wrote jokes for Bob Hope —
HOUSTON: Everybody, everybody.
MISHLOVE: And many of the great humorists —
HOUSTON: Yes. Amos and Andy, Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly — all of them. And I went to twenty-nine schools before I was twelve, you know, because Dad was always on the road writing these shows. I mean, I would go to school in Biloxi, Mississippi one day and Bemidji, Minnesota the next. And in those days it was like literally going from Mars to Earth, the different realities. But I think I got interested in human potentials because of my father’s career. I was just remembering how one of the most thrilling things that ever happened to me was when my father said to me when I was eight years old, “Hey kid, do you want to come and talk to Charlie?” — Charlie McCarthy, the dummy of Edgar Bergen, the ventriloquist.
MISHLOVE: I remember. I was very young at the time.
HOUSTON: He wore a little tuxedo and was full of wise-cracking remarks. And I used to love to go and talk to him, because we would have these marvelously funny conversations, with Charlie sitting on Bergen’s knee. And I said, “Let’s go, Daddy.” So we went, and there was Bergen in his hotel room, and the door was open. So we just walked in because we heard voices, and there was Bergen, talking to Charlie, with his back to us, asking Charlie ultimate questions: “Charlie, what is nature of life? Charlie, what does it mean to be truly good? Charlie, where is the soul?” And this little dummy was answering with the wisdom of the universe. It was as if all the greatest philosophical minds of five millennia were condensed inside that little wooden head and coming out of those little wooden jaws. And Bergen got so excited at these extraordinary, numinous answers that he said, “But Charlie, Charlie, how can we ever really know anything? Charlie, what or who is God?” I mean, no slouch he, for questions. And the little dummy would listen and then pour out these incredible gems of high crafted wisdom. And my father, who was an agnostic Baptist, got very embarrassed by these answers, and he coughed. And Bergen turned around and turned beet red and said, “Hello, Jack. Hi, Jean. I see you caught us.” And my father said, “Yeah, and what are you doin’? I didn’t write that stuff. You’re rehearsing, aren’t you?” “No rehearsal, Jack. This is real. I was asking Charlie the most important questions, and you heard the answers.” And my father said, “But that’s — that’s you, that’s your voice, that’s your knowledge coming out of that dummy’s mouth.” And Bergen said, “Well, yes, I suppose ultimately it is. But you know, when I ask him these questions and he answers, I haven’t got the faintest idea what he’s going to say, and what he says astounds me with his wisdom. It is so much more that I know.” And I could feel — I as a little child, eight years old, felt as if my whole future was condensed in that moment — that as we are, compared to the way we think we are, we inhabit such a tiny part of our reality, maybe the attic of ourselves, with the first, second, third, and fourth floors relatively uninhabited and the basement locked except when it occasionally explodes. And from that moment, my life, in a sense, my life course was set, because I knew that I had to devote my life to helping people access these extraordinary domains of knowledge, of potential, that we all have, but have shut ourselves off from.
MISHLOVE: Since I mentioned Teilhard, I think we should also say you were gifted with a friendship with him as a young child, about the same age also.
HOUSTON: No, I was older. I was fourteen. I once ran into this Frenchman on the street and I knocked the wind out of him, and he said to me, when I was about fourteen, “Are you planning to run like that for the rest of your life?” I said, “Yes sir, it looks that way.” He said, “Well bon voyage, bon voyage.” And I ran to school, and the following week I met him, and we began to take these walks in the park, and they were numinous. He would say, “[French accent] Oh, Jeanne, Jeanne, look, look, a caterpillar! Hm! Jeanne, what is a caterpillar, huh? Moving, changing, transforming, metamorphosing. Jeanne, feel yourself to be a caterpillar.” “Oh, very easily, Mr. –” I called him Mr. Teilhard — “Mr. Teilhard.” “And feel your transformation. Oh, Jean, sniff the wind. [Sniffing] Same wind once knew PŠre Jesus-Christ. [Sniffing] Ah, Marie Antoinette. [Sniffing] Ah, Jeanne d’Arc! Be filled with Joan of Arc.” It was extraordinary. Everything was sentient; everything was full of life. He looked at you, he looked at you as kind of a cluttered house that hid the Holy One, and you felt yourself looked at as if you were God in hiding, and you felt yourself so charged and greened with evolutionary possibilities. And I used to go home and tell my mother, “Mother, I met my own man, and when I am with him I leave my littleness behind.” And of course I found out years later, after he had died, it was Teilhard de Chardin I was meeting.
MISHLOVE: It’s an interesting phrase — “I leave my littleness behind.”
HOUSTON: Leave my littleness behind, yes.
MISHLOVE: It seems that for many of us — I know in my own life — at times we get so caught up in our littleness we forget there’s anything else.
HOUSTON: Well, we don’t have time to do that anymore, do we? I mean, we are living in the most complex times in human history. I realize other times in history thought they were it. They were wrong; this is it. I mean, what we do — in my travels around the world, which now are almost a quarter of a million miles, working in many cultures, in many, many domains of human experience — I really discover that maybe we have ten or fifteen years of an open corridor to make a difference. Many people, all over the world, are really haunted by this. They wake up with a sense that they just cannot live out their lives as encapsulated bags of skin dragging around dreary little egos, and that all the walls are crashing down. I mean, we have extraordinary — the membranes have cracked through as cultures begin to flow into each other. We are on the verge of a true planetary culture, with high individuation of individual cultures. Cultures are becoming more so, not less. The potentials of different cultures — the potentials, for example, of an African culture that I have studied, which has no history of war, no neurosis as we understand it, incredible problem solving. And when I studied this culture in West Africa, and I saw how they solved problems — they didn’t say, “Uh, yes, what is it, A, yes, Subsection 1, 2, 3 –” No. First they danced the problem. [Singing] And then they sang it, and they danced it, and then they envisioned it, and then they drew it, and they talked about it, and they danced it, then they breathed it, and they all had the solution. Because they were operating on many, many frames of mind. In the harvest of world culture that is happening in our time, what we are gaining is not only different frames of mind — thinking in images, thinking in words, thinking with our whole bodies — but we are gaining access to the ecology of the genius of the human race. We are all becoming Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, but accessing this incredible domain of the human genius, so that we discover, for example, that we are in a state of chronic education. I have never met a stupid child. I have met incredibly stupid systems of education that diminish our ideas of ourselves, that give us a very limited, local notion, and we can’t get away with it anymore. And we have incredible access to who and what we are. It’s not for nothing that the whole earth as an image is in our mind at the same time as the whole brain, the whole, whole mind, and all these cultures converging, and — what should we say? We gestate in each other.
MISHLOVE: I guess there’s a sense in which, if we look at the animal kingdom — how each species manages to develop some unique quality of what an animal can do — it’s as if cultures each foster different aspects of what it is like to be human, what is possible for a human.
HOUSTON: Yes, I think that is so. And now for the first time in human history, it’s as if we have all these cultures that are coming together — because of planetization, because of the rise of women to full partnership with men in the whole domain of human affairs, because we have such easy access to each other. By the year 2000 this is going to be a world of colossal busy-bodiness. Anybody will be able to call anybody. I remember a year and a half ago I was in the Orinoco, deep in the jungle, and out comes from the jungle a man, naked, who probably had never seen a wheeled vehicle, with a transistor radio clapped to his ear, probably listening to the ball game from Mexico City. So that we have this extraordinary interdependent world, and then of course we have the access to the understanding of human potentials. We’re living in the golden age of the understanding of who and what we can be.
MISHLOVE: Well, what you’re saying is that we have access to all of the knowledge that’s been accumulated in all of the cultures throughout the history of humanity.
HOUSTON: And sufficient crisis and complexity and radical need to make use of this knowledge, which we did not have to do when we were just men and women in search of subsistence, or living within tribal or nation states.
MISHLOVE: Isn’t there also a backlash going on?
HOUSTON: Of course there is. I mean, whenever you are on the verge of so much more, people say, “Oooohhh, uummm, I don’t think so. No, no, back to basics. Back to fundamentalist fortresses of truth.” Back to sanctifying of mediocrity. And also the incredible yearning for a pattern that makes sense, and we are in a time in which literally all systems are in transition. Everything has shaken down into chaos. Everything is breaking down — standard-brand governments, politics, economics, religions, relationships. And we are probably in the greatest shaking up in human history. And so what we are seeing is the sunset effect — you know, the sun gets brighter and blazes out before it goes down — the sunset effect of all the traditional ways of knowing, seeing, being — and a rising of fundamentalism. But I don’t think that’s going to last very long, because the world is simply too complex. I’ve often said we’re educated for a much earlier era, not for the immense complexity of who and what we are in human history. And people are discovering that the need, the yearning, that I find literally all over the world, to become what we can be — and that’s one of the main reasons why we find myth rising all over the world, because myth gives us the kind of coding, in the story of ourselves writ large, as the hero and heroine of a thousand faces. It gives us access to a much larger story, and all of us are on the verge of becoming citizens in a universe larger than our aspiration and much more complex than all our dreams. Myths are rising everywhere. I remember last year I was in India — I guess it was a year and a half ago. On Sunday all of India stops to watch the great television program of the great mythic drama of India, the myth, the Ramayana, the story of the young Prince Rama’s search for his beloved wife who has been abducted by the demons — the young prince Rama, searching for Sita. And I was in one of those villages, one of the 600,000 villages, and almost every one seems to have a television set — one set.
MISHLOVE: In the center of the village.
HOUSTON: In the center of the village, and so you see people coming in with their water buffalo and leaving them, and taking the water jugs off their head and sitting down around the set. And I was sitting next to an older lady, and she was watching the story of poor Sita, just beleaguered and not being able to do anything for herself, and she said, “Oh, I don’t like this story of Sita. She is too weak, she is too passive.” I said, “Oh? What do you mean? It’s a beautiful, elaborate story.” “No, you see, my name is Sita, and my husband’s name is Rama — very common in India. And my husband is a lazy bum and I do most of the work, and we’ve got to show that. We’ve got to change the story, change the story to see how strong women are today.” And she was actually talking about how the myth had to grow. Well, after this beautiful, beautiful story, guess what followed it all over India on television? Dynasty! I was incredibly embarrassed.
MISHLOVE: But it’s a story about strong women.
HOUSTON: Yes. She said, “Oh sister, why are you so embarrassed? Don’t you realize it is the same story?” I said, “Well, how do you mean?” “You’ve got the good lady, you’ve got the bad lady; you’ve got the good man, you’ve got the bad man. They’ve got a beautiful house, they’ve got the beautiful clothes. You’ve got the war against good and evil. Oh yes indeed, it is the same story.” She was absolutely right.
MISHLOVE: Interesting. Well, you have traveled all over the world, Jean. You’ve probably put on as many miles as anybody I know.
HOUSTON: Whoever lived, practically, at this point.
MISHLOVE: You are called in as a consultant by many different governments.
HOUSTON: Governments and human development agencies, the United Nations.
MISHLOVE: Heads of state occasionally.
HOUSTON: Yes, oh yes. More than occasionally.
MISHLOVE: You’re spreading the gospel of human potential everywhere.
HOUSTON: Well, I work in a different way, though, you see. What I will do is I’ll go and I’ll live in a culture for a period of time. And I don’t mean the Bombay Hilton, either, you know; I mean, I will live in huts with the peasants and with the people of the land, and I will get to know many different strata of the society and get a sense of what is trying to happen. I’ll give a lot of speeches too, you know, and then I’ll hold a seminar, often with the leaders or the evocateurs of the culture, for perhaps ten or twelve or fifteen days. And we’ll be locked up together, and I will start with their core myth, like, for example, with India it might be the Ramayana; when I was in Burma it was the life of Buddha, or something like that. And we will take these great stories and live them out as the drama of their own potentials. And I’ll integrate a great many physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual processes and exercises that are key to the story, but are also keyed to the releasing of the potentials of the culture — what can education in Taiwan be? What can a new social ethic in South Africa be? — using these coded stories that often contain the multiple levels of what can happen. And it seems to work, and people then continue with this kind of work and take it and change the schools and the hospitals and the social systems.
MISHLOVE: There’s a great paradox, though, of you, the American woman, coming in and giving, in effect, their culture back to them.
HOUSTON: I agree, and I don’t know why it works, but it does. And also I don’t look like them, you see, because I’m nearly six feet tall, and often they’re rather small people. No, it’s being a woman that is an advantage, because I don’t come in telling them what to do. I come in as a deep listener, and also as a student. I’ve spent a lot of time learning as much about their culture, so I am as full of questions for them as they are for me. So it really is interdependent and is a mutual sharing.
MISHLOVE: There is a wonderful story you tell me about your encounter in Australia with an Aborigine woman.
HOUSTON: Yes, yes, that was wonderful — several years ago. We were in the center of Australia, and she was showing me how to find food. And I said, “Well, how can you find food here? I mean, it’s barren; there’s nothing here.”
And she said, “What is it? You don’t see? Look at these beautiful grasses. Sip this wheat resin. Ah! Isn’t that beautiful! Look! You see that sink over there, mate? Under that, oh, look what we’re going to find. Oh, a beautiful tuber! Ah, under that rock there — oh, lovely mealy grubs! What a dinner we’re going to have! How can you live seeing as little as you do?” How indeed? I mean, here she was leading my blind urbanity to see nature’s secrets. And then I asked her, “How do we different human beings differ from the others — from the koala bear, from the wallaby, from the kangaroo, the animals?” She says, “Why, mate, we’re the ones who can tell the stories about all the others.” And that is our humanity, you see — that we tell the stories, that we see the larger picture, that we have access to the pattern that connects us.
MISHLOVE: It’s interesting that some of the most ancient, most primitive cultures — and surely the Australian Aborigines are among —
HOUSTON: Perhaps the oldest, yes.
MISHLOVE: They have that great gift of storytelling that’s often lost to modern culture. Jung talks about modern man in search of a soul.
HOUSTON: In search of a story is what it’s more like, yes. That’s already an abstraction, in search of a soul. Yes, you know, I think one of the problems is when we got the television set it replaced the hearth, didn’t it? It was at the hearth that the grandparents or the elders told the stories, and the great chain of being between the generations was woven, and the wisdom was passed on. And now, you know, the grandparents have moved elsewhere, often south, and we’re left with the television set. But we’re also being given access, and more and more, to everybody’s stories, to everybody’s myths. And also the sense that we are now all in it together, in perhaps the greatest moment in human history, in which we are recreating the earth story.
MISHLOVE: Well, here we are, living at a time where humanity as a whole is faced with its potential for self-annihilation.
MISHLOVE: And at the same time, these great myths are rising up, and there’s this yearning for myth. And each myth has its own embodiment of a sense of the divine. And it’s ironic to me, I think it’s significant, that as we face our own potential death, that we are reminded of our divinity.
HOUSTON: Yes indeed. I’m thinking now of the greatest Western myth. One of the key myths of the Western world is the search for the Grail. You find that is a very key myth, and in that story, the world is a wasteland. It has lost its story; it’s lost its depths. And the Fisher King, who holds the secrets of the Grail, himself can only fish because he’s so deeply wounded. And the knights from Arthur’s court and the healers come day and night to try to help him, but nothing works. And one day the chosen knight, whose name is Percival, or Parsifal — his name means “piercer of the veil” to the larger story, or Parsifal, “total fool,” because the total fool, the great comedian, the fool, is often the piercer of the veil. But he’s just had a Ph.D. in knightcraft; you know, he’s learned too much, and he knows that a good and perfect knight doesn’t ask too much. He stays quiet. So this Grail is being passed in his midst of the Fisher King, and he says, “Uh –,” and he doesn’t ask the question. And the next morning, after he wakes up, the castle is empty, and he goes out and spends somewhere between five to seven years doing his job with no passion — so much like ourselves; we miss our great moments. We spend seven years doing what we’re supposed to do, but with no passion, with no heart, and with no story.
MISHLOVE: Because he failed to ask.
HOUSTON: He failed to ask the great question, and it is only after he has accumulated a great deal of human experience and a great deal of extremely hard-won wisdom, and has cracked through the membrane of his own forgetfulness, that he is then able, in the course of the story, to go back to the castle years later, and this time he does not stand on ceremony. He goes and says, “Who serves the Grail?”; in some stories, “Where is the Grail?” The Grail appears. And then “Uncle, what ails thee?” — the question of compassion. And instantly the Fisher King is healed, and the wasteland is healed. It begins to become green again, and budding and growing and flowing, and a new energy, a new heart, is in the minds and hearts and beings of the people. No one had had enough passion for the possible to ask the great question: “Where is it? How is it? How am I part of it?” — the Grail, the source level, the great patterns of existence that are beneath the surface crust of consciousness. Where is it, and how does it heal and whole? How do we see the pattern of reconnection into the domain of nature, of reality, of spirit? And that is why the world was failing, from lack of the passion to ask the great question. And I think it’s the great Western story, and of course it has been renewed and is reviving all over the place in movies and films and in stories, because we are back at that place, that we are in a wasteland — a wasteland of heart, of mind, of ecology, the holocaust of ecology; the diminishing of our resources. And we are now saying, “Where is it? What is the secret of nature? What is the secret of the heart? What does it mean to truly love? How can we find our sourcing again?” And the kind of work I do all over the world is essentially to say that the Grail is within. It is there. We have access to these capacities. It is now time for us to learn to use them.
MISHLOVE: The wounding seems so significant here.
HOUSTON: Yes. Wounding is critical to every great myth. Christ must have his Crucifixion, otherwise no upsy-daisy, you know. Artemis must kill him who comes too close; Dionysius must be childish and attract Titanic enemies and be ripped apart. Achilles heel; Odin’s eye.
MISHLOVE: But there is a sense too, now on this planet, there’s such wounding of nature.
HOUSTON: Such wounding. Oh yes. I mean, wounding of nature and wounding of ourselves. Most of us have somewhere between, I’d say, five to a hundred times the amount of sheer human experience of our ancestors of a hundred years ago. And this has rendered us very wounded; I mean, some of us are so full of holes we’ve become holy. But we’ve become incredibly available and vulnerable to each other in our wounding, in our sympathies, in our empathies. It’s as if that through the wounding of the hard shell of ego, we are now reaching out and making connections, networking — friendships, transformational friendships between men and women, between countries, between cultures. So the depths are rising everywhere. And in all the great stories the wounding was the entrance to the sacred. It was through the wounding that the depths could rise. And the depths are rising at the same time as are all the shadows, of course.
MISHLOVE: Do you find in your journeys around the world that in the affluent areas, where people are very comfortable and maybe less aware of their wounding, that there’s maybe less interest in asking the deep questions, like “What ails the –”
HOUSTON: No. No, you’d think the answer would be that is so, but it isn’t. I find that the asking of the question is literally pansystemic. It is Pangaia. I mean, it’s as if the whole earth is asking, whether it be somebody who is living very simply in the center of Australia, but profoundly — and these primitives are not primitive; they are primal, they are filled with the consummate wisdom of forty thousand years — or whether it is some sort of high-tech cyber-nerd, you know, in California. Everybody is living in a state of divine discontent and extraordinary outreach to the larger story.
MISHLOVE: You often use this phrase. When I ask you, “What is your work about? What is your real message?” you’ve told me in the past that it is simply this: This is the time. We are the people.
HOUSTON: These are the times. We are the people. If not now, when? If not you, who? — as Hillel said two thousand years ago. And all of us are serving as midwives, as evocateurs of the possible in each other. And we can only do it together. There’s no such thing as a guru anymore. I mean, guru should be spelled “Gee, You Are You.” And that’s ultimately what my work is about.
MISHLOVE: We have just a couple of minutes, Jean. Is there some final thought you’d like to leave with our viewers?
HOUSTON: A final thought! What an extraordinary idea that there is a final thought. I think my final thought is there’s no such thing as a final thought — that we are really part of an ongoing story, a never-ending adventure; that these are the most exciting times in human history; that what we do profoundly makes a difference. But one thing that I advise people to do so that they don’t get lost in their own loneliness is to find a few friends, and to start a teaching-learning community, an ongoing teaching-learning community, in which they grow together, in which they challenge each other, in which they do perhaps physical or mental or psychological or spiritual processes, so that they really keep themselves at the growing edge. Once they start they will know what to do. Margaret Mead on her death bed — I was very close to Margaret Mead, and she said to me, “Forget everything I’ve been teaching you about working with governments and bureaucracies.” And I say, “Now you tell me?” And she laughs; she says, “Yes. I’ve been lying here being an anthropologist on my own dying. Fascinating experience,” she said. “There’s no hierarchy here.” And I realized that if we’re going to survive and green our time, it’s a question of citizens’ groups, volunteer groups, getting together and creating ongoing teaching-learning communities.
MISHLOVE: Jean Houston, thanks so much for being with me.
HOUSTON: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: And for those of you who’ve enjoyed this discussion, you’ll probably want to know that there’s going to be an additional hour with Jean Houston, following up on this conversation, as part of the Thinking Allowed Inner Work videotape series. Jean, thank you once again.
HOUSTON: Thank you, Jeffrey. I’ve enjoyed it.